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John Bolton Announces Closing Palestinian Liberation Organization U.S. Office; GOP Launches Effort to Save Ted Cruz's Senate Seat; Dire Warnings of Imminent Slaughter in Syria; DeSantis Under Fire for Speaking at Racially Charged Events; Trump Calls New Bob Woodward Book a "Joke". Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired September 10, 2018 - 13:30   ET



[13:30:50] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: The United States is taking aim at the Palestinian leadership today, announcing the closing of the mission here in Washington.

National Security Advisor John Bolton explained the decision.


JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: As President Reagan recognized in this context, the executive has the right to decide the kind of foreign relations, if any, the United States will maintain. And the Trump administration will not keep the office open when the Palestinians refuse to take steps to start direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel. The United States supports a direct and robust peace process and we will not allow the ICC or any other organization to constrain Israel's right to self defense.


SCIUTTO: Josh Rogin is with me, CNN political analyst and columnist for the "Washington Post."

Josh, this is the latest in a series of moves by this administration, most recent ones targeted the Palestinians. They pulled $25 million in aid to the Palestinians as well, in addition to taking positions aligned with Benjamin Netanyahu's administration. What's going on here?

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: According to the administration, they are punishing the Palestinians for not cooperating under the theory that that will get them to cooperate. What we are facing is a coming roll out of the long-awaited Middle East peace plan, led by presidential special adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. They have been preparing this for a year. It's coming soon. They want to hammer the Palestinians until they come to the table.

As we have seen from the Palestinian's reaction today, it's not likely to work. They call this vicious blackmail. And they're saying, we would never cooperate while we have this blackmail going on.

SCIUTTO: The Palestinians are not coming to the table.

ROGIN: They keep saying they are not coming to the table, and the point is, why should we come to the table while you are punishing us, and why should be come to the table while you are taking money away from refugees and changing the status quo on the ground. That only leads to one conclusion, that there may be another motivation for all of these moves. Namely, that the Trump administration is seeking to please its base, conservative pro-Israel Jews and evangelical Christian, who have been pushing for these moves for a very long time, knowing when they released this peace plan, it's unlikely to go anywhere anyway. And at least they'll have a list of things they can bring back to their supporters to say, we defended Israel, we stood up to the Palestinians, and it's their fault, not our fault that piece is not happening.

SCIUTTO: If this is about domestic U.S. politics and not about peace, why bother releasing this peace plan?

ROGIN: They want to say they gave it the goods college try. There's a contradiction here. Of course, there's a chance that if you punish the Palestinians enough, they will yield. That doesn't look like it's going to happen. That's the theory. They can have it either way. If the Palestinians fold to the pressure, good. If they don't fold to the pressure, the Trump people can go back to their supporters and say, hey, we gave it a try and, look, we did all of these things. We met all of these that the president promised to do. In some ways, it's a cynical plan, but it's also what they decided to do. And there are real consequences on the ground. That's not $25 million. That's $350 million of U.N. assistance to Palestinian refugees that we are now withholding. OK, that will affect millions of people. What we are looking at is a rollout followed by a prolonged period of a stalemate in diplomacy and the potential that in this environment, there could be a return to violence.

[13:34:23] SCIUTTO: Not so warming prospects.

Josh Rogin, thanks very much.

Republican Ron DeSantis abruptly resigns from Congress. This, as the Florida gubernatorial candidate is one again under fire. This time, for speaking at racially charged events. The details are coming up.

Plus, the GOP reportedly launching a rescue operation to save Ted Cruz. This, after a top Trump official said the Senator is at risk of losing his seat in Texas.


SCIUTTO: Republicans are said to be launching a full-on rescue mission for Ted Cruz's Senate seat in Texas. "Politico" reporting that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick traveled to the White House to make an urgent plea to send President Trump to Texas and the president came through, announcing a big October rally for Ted Cruz. Cruz fighting for his political life against Democrat Beto O'Rourke, who is closing a very narrow gap in the polls. Over the weekend, the "New York Times" reported a top White House official, Mick Mulvaney, told a group of party donors that Cruz was not likeable enough and losing his seat was at least a possibility.

Alex Isenstadt is a reporter for and he broke the Cruz rescue stories.

So Dan Patrick goes to Washington, issuing, I suppose, a nervous plea here. What's that based on? They were just looking at the numbers?

[13:40:19] ALEX ISENSTADT, REPORTER, POLITICO.COM: Absolutely. Everyone is looking at the numbers and saying this is Texas, a conservative state, and this this race is closer than it should be. They want to send the president out there in October. He's going to do this. The president will go out there. The president's son is going out there. They'll try to amp up conservative enthusiasm for Cruz in the final weeks of the race.

SCIUTTO: Folks, Democrats have eyed Texas with relish in the past. There was some talk before 2016, with Hillary Clinton, oh, my, could she? Never happened. Not even close. Is this one -- are these concerns now more substantial for Republicans?

ISENSTADT: Potentially. Look, you talk to people from both parties and it's going to be very hard for Beto O'Rourke to win the race. Cruz is still the favorite. Polling shows Cruz up in single digits, five or six points. But it's closer than it should be. And you have the Republican cavalry coming into Texas and supporting Cruz, and they're trying to do whatever they can to get him over the finish line.

SCIUTTO: Trump, his support worked in the primaries, no question. I forget what the record was. It was 4-1 or something.


SCIUTTO: At least his endorsement helped. In the general state like Texas, does Trump's arrival -- are they convinced Trump's arrival will be a net positive?

ISENSTADT: This is the big question in a lot of the Senate races coming up this fall. What I think the White House people and the people close to Trump are betting is that Democrats are enthused and they come out in November no matter what. The question is, how can they bring out the Republican voters. And to a great extent, Trump is the best motivator to get the GOP voters out to the polls in November.

SCIUTTO: Ted Cruz, what's the closest race he has had in Texas. What's the closest that a Republican has been threatened there by Democrats?

ISENSTADT: It has been a while. It's a conservative state. And you talk to people close to Cruz and they are confident about this race. There are still some Republicans who think the concern is overblown, but others are saying, look, we can't take anything for granted. And Beto O'Rourke is raising a lot of money and driving up a lot of liberal enthusiasm across the country. And they need to take it seriously.

SCIUTTO: Alex Isenstadt, great story.

ISENSTADT: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Thanks for coming on. Good job.

ISENSTADT: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Still ahead, Vice President Mike Pence denies he is behind a scathing anti-Trump op-ed and said he will take a lie detector test to prove it.

The White House holding its first on-camera briefing in 19 days, just a short time from now. That's a live picture from inside the White House briefing room.

And a dire warning from a top U.N. official who predicts an imminent attack in Idlib, Syria, could lead to the country's -- to the century's worst loss of life. We have a live report from inside Syria. That's next.


[13:47:28] SCIUTTO: Warnings of imminent slaughter in Syria as humanitarian groups in the country say that Syrian and Russian war planes have escalated their airstrikes on Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in the country. The Syrian government says it's specifically targeting rebels affiliated with al Qaeda. There are also fears of a chemical attack ahead of an all-out ground assault.

A short time ago, there was this dire warning from the United Nations emergency coordinator.


MARK LOWCOCK, EMERGENCY COORDINATOR, UNITED NATIONS: There needs to be ways of dealing with this problem that don't turn next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life of the 21st century.


SCIUTTO: The biggest loss of life in the 21st century, just remarkable terms there.

CNN senor international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, is in Syria now.

Fred, of the many concerns there, you have a number of U.S. forces still in Syria and in and around Idlib. What is the level of U.S. involvement and proximity here?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. The U.S. doesn't have much of a force in and around Idlib. One of the things we are seeing from the Trump administration, you heard national security adviser, John Bolton, say, if there's a chemical attack on the part of the Syrian government forces, there would be a strong response by the U.S., probably by cruise missiles or by aviation. Vice President Mike Pence made a similar warning over the weekend as well.

Other than that, Jim, in that specific area, in Idlib Provence, under the Trump administration, the U.S. has rolled back the influence that it has on the ground. Of course, that means that the countries that decide the fate of the three million civilians inside the area are Russia, Iran, and Turkey. They had the summit on Friday, but they didn't come to a conclusion.

What we have seen over the weekend really is more and more airstrikes happening in that area by the Russian air force and the Syrian air force as well. There were people killed on the ground. As you said, the Russians and the Syrians are saying they are targeting groups affiliated with al Qaeda. Of course, there have been civilian targets that have been hit as well. What we are hearing on the ground from the Syrian military is they are saying they have this area surrounded. They could begin this offensive at any time. They also say they haven't actually started yet, despite the fact we're seeing these airstrikes. All of this happening despite the warnings we're hearing out of Washington, from the Trump administration. It seems that the Assad government, at this point in time, very much unfazed from what it's hearing from President Trump and some of the others in the U.S. administration -- Jim?

[13:50:03] SCIUTTO: It sounds like they think they can end the war and take over the country.

Fred Pleitgen, thanks very much.

A Republican Congressman running for governor in Florida once again under fire, this time, for reportedly speaking multiple times at racially charged events. The details, ahead.

Plus, the White House holding its first on-camera briefing in 19 days, just a short time from now. And it looks like they've added some TV screens in the room. We'll see what message they're trying to get out today.


[13:55:14] SCIUTTO: The Republican candidate for Florida's governor under fire once again. Just days after Congressman Ron DeSantis was accused of using a racist term, the "Washington Post" reports that DeSantis spoke at multiple racially charged events, this dating back to 2013. At these conferences, you'd hear hundreds of people, many of the speakers right-wing speakers, but also some of them known racists, bigots, Milo Yiannopoulos, Sebastian Gorka, who's had anti-Muslim positions.

CNN's senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns, joins me now.

So first of all, at these events, you have a variety of viewpoints, many from the right, certainly not all racists and not all bigoted, but those kinds of voices seem to be a regular feature at these events.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Right. And I think it's important for a variety of reasons. Number one, because, right now -- and you have to underscore this -- he's running against an African-American candidate, Andrew Gillum, who's the Tallahassee mayor, and he makes a comment, for example, on television, saying, we don't want to "monkey up the state." And the question, of course, was whether that was a racist comment or not. He said it wasn't intended to be racist. But now you overlay that with this disclosure in the "Washington Post" that he's appeared four times before this group, organized by a conservative who has brought in these types of viewpoints, repeatedly. Then it starts to paint a bit of a more of a picture.

And also important, I think, because the African-American community, already galvanized by the possibility of first African-American governor for the state of Florida, and now has these questions about the Republican candidate.

SCIUTTO: And the point about DeSantis -- and some of this came up when he used the racially charged term -- is that, here's an experienced politician, sitting Congressman, I believe he's a military vet.

JOHNS: Right.

SCIUTTO: Smart guy, right? But he's been -- if he's been going to these events, going back to 2013, none of this should be a surprise to him, right? You wouldn't go to the event and not know the kind of stuff that is being said.

JOHNS: Right. And the question becomes whether this is all a wink and a nod to bring out those voters who support right-wing notions. Of course, he's also considered a very big Donald Trump supporter.

SCIUTTO: So he's resigned his seat. He's also not running again for his congressional seat. But we're early September.

JOHNS: Right.

SCIUTTO: So until that election, there's been several weeks here, where no one's sitting in that seat.

JOHNS: Precisely. And Florida is trying to figure out what to do. They are planning a conference call this afternoon to determine whether or not there ought to be a special election to have somebody in that seat, the sixth district, through the end of December, into the beginning of January, when the new Congress is sworn in. Because the question is whether there's enough time, particularly, to get military ballots out, which have to go out 45 days before the election, and what are they going to do? Because somebody's got to be in that seat, presumably, if they can, until January.

SCIUTTO: But there are already candidates in place, Democratic and Republican, to fill that seat in the regular general election.


JOHNS: Right. The primary was the 28th of August. There's a Republican, there's a Democrat, and DeSantis was presumed to be not running.


Joe Johns, thanks very much for clearing up for us.

That is it for me today, Jim Sciutto, sitting in for Wolf.

NEWSROOM with Brooke Baldwin starts right now.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Hi, there. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you so much for being with me.

We are minutes away from the first White House briefing in nearly three weeks. It comes as President Trump claims the White House is a smooth-running machine, despite the fact that his own vice president has offered to take a lie detector test. It's to prove he did not write that withering "New York Times" opinion piece, slamming the president, and as administration officials try to figure out which one of their own is not telling the truth.

The president is calling Bob Woodward a liar. The acclaimed journalist, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist of Watergate fame, debuts his Trump tell-all, "Fear" -- the name of his book -- tomorrow.

And the president is discrediting Woodward's account of an administration in an unprecedented crisis. Trump tweeted, the Woodward book is a, quote, "scam," and a "joke" that should not be taken with a grain of salt.

And here is what he says about Woodward. Trump cites Savannah Guthrie, the host of the "Today" show, who interviewed Woodward this morning. Quote, "It is mostly anonymous sources in here. Why should anyone trust you? General Mattis, General Kelly said it's not true."

Trump then writes, quote, "Bob Woodward is a liar who is like a Dem operative prior to the midterms. He was caught cold even by NBC."